I take their pictures every year on the first day of school. Sometimes they pose inside in their living rooms, sometimes outside on their front lawns. Sometimes I’ve followed their mothers (my daughters) to their schools and snapped away as they’ve toddled, skipped, hop-scotched through some open door, every one of them turning back to wave in the beginning.
But not any more.
Charlotte was solemn when it was her first day of nursery school. She clutched her mother’s hand and frowned. She couldn’t wait to be big enough to go to school like the rest of the kids. But when it was her turn, she was close to tears.
She was so little then, she thought her school was a castle. “There’s my Castle School!” she would say every time we rode by. She knows better now and giggles at her former self.
Charlotte is 7, a second-grader this year, a bigger kid than she was last September, her front teeth finally coming in. And she is so much bigger than she was in nursery school. They’re all bigger, my grandkids and all their friends. A few more inches and the boys will be as tall as I am.
But they’re all still little, too. Not babies, I know, but not even close to being ready for the world. That’s what struck me last week as they smiled for the camera and later as I studied pictures of these children I’ve been photographing since they were born.
They’re taller now, their faces thinner, their teeth bigger. Three of them are in fifth grade. Their bodies are preadolescent. And they will be going to middle school next year.
But that doesn’t make them grown up.
And yet, that’s what I think sometimes and that’s what I say. “Look at you! You’re almost grown up!” Because I see the changes, the shedding of board books for real books. The shedding of toys for games, of children’s shows for sports. The shedding of fantasy for reality. Plus, I can do the math. Seven years ago, the 11-year-olds were in preschool. Seven years from now they will be 18.
“If you could visit any country in the world, where would you go?” someone asked my grandson Adam the other day. “Finland,” he said. And the person asked why and Adam, who is 10, said, “Because my Grandpa lived there but had to leave because of World War II.”
Adam knows about war, but he doesn’t know about war. War is a story his grandpa tells him. War is in books. Wars happened in other places a long, long time ago, before he was born.
He doesn’t understand about now. About ISIS and Syria and Lebanon and Palestine and Israel and Russia and Ukraine. About the little time that separates the happy, innocent, carefree child he is from the man he will be in less time than it has taken him to grow into a fifth-grader. So little time that you can count the years on your fingers and have fingers to spare.
This is what kills me.
The day I downloaded my grandchildren’s first-day-of-school pictures, I watched Steven Sotloff’s mother, Shirley, plead for her son’s life. He was already dead by then, this mother’s son, killed by another mother’s son, who not so long ago was just a boy.
It’s never made sense, the juxtaposition of war and peace in this world, of good and evil, of hate and love.
But there it is.
My 5-year-old grandson, Luke, has this idea that somewhere in the world there are “rocket shoes” that will take him anywhere he wants to go, fast. And that when he grows up he will buy them and go live on Candy Planet. We ache to keep him a child for as long as we can.
Beverly Beckham can be reached at BeverlyBeckham@me.com.